Houston Community News >> Taiwanese Americans Remember Massacre

2/28/2007-- Editor’s Note: Sixty years ago today, a brutal crackdown by the Chinese Nationalist government led to the massacre of as many as 30,000 people in Taiwan. Taiwanese-Americans hope to bring the incident to the world’s attention, reports New America Media writer Eugenia Chien.

Immigrants from Taiwan are commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 228 Incident, a brutal crackdown that began on Feb. 28, 1947 and led to the massacre of as many as 30,000 people in Taiwan by the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government. This past week Taiwanese-Americans organized concerts and symposiums across the nation, and led a march from Delaware to Washington, D.C.

“The people were machine-gunned. Groups were rounded up and executed,” reported The New York Times in March 1947. “There seemed to be a policy of killing off all the best people,” one foreigner told The New York Times.

Until the late 1980s, when the first Taiwanese president took office, anyone who talked about the massacre would be persecuted. Immigrants like Chiang-Liu Chen have been able to talk about and condemn the atrocities more openly.

Chen was a 16-year-old high school student when the tragedy began. On Feb. 28, 1947, a police shooting in Taipei escalated into an uprising between the people of Taiwan and the corrupt Chinese Nationalist government. Violence soon spread to the southern city of Kaohsiung, where Chen lived. Chen escaped with two of his high school classmates. One of his older brothers was killed.

“Some soldiers came after us and went house to house to look for us. So we just hid, all of us – my friend, his mother and two younger brothers, under the tatami,” he says. “Nationalist soldiers looted, raped women, took people away.”

Chen moved to the United States in 1965 as a graduate student at Brigham Young University in Utah. Now 76, Chen is the president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs in Utah.

“In Taiwan, for a long time we couldn’t talk about 228 at all. When I’m here, I want people to know what happened. I have nothing to hide,” Chen says.

At a memorial concert at Stanford University on Feb. 25, about 300 people gathered to hear Taiwanese musicians. Another concert was staged on Feb. 28 in Los Angeles, where Taiwanese-Americans lit 600 candles to commemorate the anniversary. Family members of victims spoke at press conferences in cities across the country from New York to Los Angeles.

“In the past the Nationalists covered up the facts, destroyed documents, made excuses to avoid facing responsibility. That’s why we are trying to do our best to release the facts, to educate our descendents,” says Catharina L. Gill, press director of the Taiwanese American Federation of Northern California that helped organize the events in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The organization has been holding events in the United States in memory of the 228 Incident for 30 years, according to Gill.

“The immigrant community preserved these memories in a much more pristine form than the people in Taiwan,” says professor June Teufel Dreyer, who specializes in Chinese government at the University of Miami. While the incident was suppressed in Taiwan, it has always been a discussion in the Taiwanese immigrant community, she says.

After the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, the Nationalists enacted martial law in Taiwan. A period known as “White Terror” began; no one was allowed to express political dissent or talk about the 228 Incident. In the same way that the Chinese government has censored topics such as Tiananmen Square and Tibet, the Nationalist government in Taiwan kept the 228 Incident out of history books. Two generations of Taiwanese were taught little about Taiwanese history.

When Lee Teng-hui became the first Taiwanese president in 1988, information about the 228 Incident began to surface, Dreyer says.

“As a Taiwanese, Lee felt strongly that the truth should be out,” she says. “It was he who dedicated the 228 memorial in Taiwan.” The election of a pro-independence president in 2000 led to an active effort to change textbooks in Taiwan and spark discussion about Taiwanese history.

In the United States, more immigrants, including second-generation Taiwanese-Americans, hope to bring the incident to the world’s attention. Among them is Los Angeles-based filmmaker Will Tiao, executive producer of the film “Formosa Betrayed,” to be released in 2008. Tiao’s will be the first American film about the plight of Taiwanese Americans who fled to the United States after the 228 Incident.

During “White Terror,” Taiwanese-Americans were spied on by the Nationalist government, harassed, tortured, and some were killed. Most well-known were the deaths of Carnegie Mellon professor Chen Wen-Chen and journalist Henry Liu, who was murdered in San Francisco.

Though the story line in Tiao’s movie mirrors these cases, he says the film is a fictional composite of several real incidents. Born in Kansas to Taiwanese parents, Tiao saw political oppression first-hand as a child. Because of his parents’ political activism, they suspected that they were being watched.

“When I was a kid, my parents told me, ‘If anybody speaks to you in Mandarin on the phone, don’t say anything, just hang up.’” Most Taiwanese families like Tiao’s speak Hoklo, not Mandarin, the language commonly spoken by the Chinese.

Though there is an active effort to recognize the 228 Incident in Taiwan and the immigrant community, some say that the discussion has become too politicized and are not eager to talk about this part of their history.

“These politics don’t really impact our lives; it doesn’t have direct meaning,” says Lee Chen-ling, senior reporter for the Chinese Daily News in Los Angeles. She has been covering the Los Angeles Chinese community for over 20 years. “We don’t even have enough time to pay attention to our future. Politicians may find it useful to them, but to us, this is not useful,” she says.

Nevertheless, the 228 Incident has become a serious point of contention in Taiwan and among politically active Taiwanese immigrants. Demands for expiation and truth-finding commissions have ignited debate.

“[The 228 Incident] has been central to creating the sense among Taiwanese that they were victims of KMT (Nationalist Party) oppression,” says Dan Lynch, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. The massacre has heavy ethnic overtones and has become a “devastating Achilles’ heel for the KMT,” Lynch says.

“The KMT doesn’t want to see these commemorations because they were the party in power during 228,” says professor Dreyer. “They have been critical of the commemorations because they see it as being used for political gains.”

This criticism does not sit well with Beatrice Chang, 66, whose father Lee Yu-Bang, a well-respected military general in Taiwan, was murdered as a result of refusing to cooperate with the Nationalist government.

“It is unfair for people to say that the 228 Incident stirs up ethnic politics,” says Chang, who now lives in Salt Lake City. “A lot of Taiwanese died, but a lot of Chinese also died in the massacre. This is about a corrupt government: the uprising was an expression of people’s disappointment in that government.”

“The 228 Incident is still an open wound in history,” Chang says. “But we have to rise above the pain and find our lives again. We have to understand what happened, know the truth, and forgive.”

(Contributed by New America Media)